“There is nothing like having the opportunity to give a voice to those who usually have no voice or control over what has happened to them in life. These children are innocent victims of circumstances and/or people who are supposed to be the ones to protect them. As a member of society, it is one of our most important jobs to step in and protect them until they are able to do it themselves,” says Amy Whitehurst.
Since the 1970s, the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) has struggled to stretch time and manpower across caseloads. So, the court systems continue to call upon Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) to remain a steadfast, objective perspective that is trusted to be invested in the best interest of the child. United Way of the Coastal Empire supports CASAs across Bryan, Chatham, Effingham, and Liberty counties.
CASAs are special volunteers who dedicate their time to visiting with children in the foster care system and speaking on their behalf in court. The goal is to reunite families, but it isn’t a perfect world. No matter how much a child may want to be with their parents, CASAs focus on what is best for the child.
John Unkel, a CASA of Ogeechee volunteer, illustrates the difficulty of this situation, “[The most important part is] gaining the trust of the children I serve and enabling them to open up about their feelings.” The children who need CASAs have experienced abuse and neglect in their home situations. Unkel states it’s not an easy job. Learning of the abuse that is suffered by some of the children and seeing the hurt in their eyes has the most impact on him. Without community members like Whitehurst and Unkel, our society would continue to neglect our most vulnerable citizens.
Childhood years are for learning, growing, and dreaming of the person we want to become. Many children are robbed of these experiences by no choice of their own, sometimes children are raising children. Unkel recalls a particularly disturbing case. “The parents involved just [didn’t] seem to get the fact that they are not the victims, their children are [the victims].” These are the cases that no matter how much the child wants a reunion with their parents, it just isn’t the best outcome.
Despite the amount of families who cannot be reunited, there are success stories. Whitehurst was once assigned a case that involved an infant with a caring mother who made a mistake. “We’re human, and sometimes we have to understand life as a learning opportunity,” Whitehurst says. “I felt passionately that the mother had made enormous strides towards bettering herself and taking responsibility for her actions, and therefore the infant should not be kept away from his mother longer than necessary.” In the end, she made sure the court was aware of all the steps the mother had taken since her child was taken into foster care and was instrumental in reuniting them.
The heart of a volunteer is strong in our CASAs. Both Whitehurst and Unkel have served for CASA Ogeechee for a few years. Whitehurst is a lawyer who signed up because she wanted to make an impact on a child’s life. “I wanted to be part of the solution for foster kids, and CASA gives me the opportunity to be involved in a very direct way.” Unkel joined when he retired and remembered being hooked once he checked out the program.
These two and many more in the four county areas respond to the call of their community needs. The experience may be heavy, but it’s rewarding.
“At the end of the day, you will feel like much more of a human being,” says Unkel, “capable of a deeper love for others and yourself.”
Give your time, voice and invest in our kids. One by one, we protect children.